A woman’s body goes through three important phases in the course of her life. First, there is the onset of her period in her teens. Then come the child-bearing years through her twenties and thirties where a woman might choose to have children – which would make pregnancy the second phase. And finally, after all that hard work, the body will call it a day and shut shop – the last phase is characterized by menopause, when a woman will no longer have her period and will thus no longer be able to have children.
Menopause is not an illness or a health problem. It is perfectly normal and you should embrace the menopause rather than try to fight it. That being said, the symptoms of menopause can be rather severe and sometimes you may need to seek medical help to cope with them if they are disrupting your day to day living and ruining the quality of your life. Let’s take a look at what menopause is and how the symptoms of menopause will manifest.
What is Menopause?
Before we get into what menopause is, we need to first understand a couple of the main functions of the ovaries. You’ll see why in a minute. The ovaries are the female reproductive glands that produce eggs for fertilization by sperm which will eventually lead to a baby. The ovaries are also responsible for production of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone in addition to other important hormones that are necessary for menstruation, reproduction, and which are responsible for the female features of a woman’s body like her curves, breasts, the softness of her skin, and her lack of body hair.
Menopause is when your ovaries stop working. They no longer produce the hormones necessary for periods and pregnancy. And the lack of hormones can affect other aspects of your general health as well. For example, estrogen is known to strengthen bones; so after menopause, some women develop osteoporosis – a condition where the bone density decreases to a huge extent and where new bone cells are not as strong as the old ones. Estrogen also helps your body to lower the levels of cholesterol. So you are at higher risk for heart disease once you reach menopause.
Your body will still be producing estrogen after you reach menopause, but not at the level that was normal throughout your life. It has been estimated that there is a drop of about 40 to 50% in the amount of estrogen produced by a woman’s body after she reaches menopause. No wonder then that menopause and some of its symptoms are so prominently felt.
Although menopause is affected by the cessation of other hormones as well, it is mainly estrogen that causes the host of menopause symptoms. This is why some doctors will recommend estrogen shots or supplements if the symptoms of menopause get out of hand.
Menopause is actually a long process that occurs over a number of years. Menopause can be segregated into three phases as below.
Peri-menopause: Also known as pre-menopause, this is when hormonal production begins to fluctuate and the chemical makeup of a woman’s body undergoes the initial changes. This phase can last from four to six years.
Menopause: Menstruation has stopped completely and the hormonal changes are raging in full swing. Once a whole year has passed after your last period, you are said to have reached menopause.
Post-menopause: This is simply a term used for the years after you have hit menopause.
All these phases will overlap and you may not be able to tell one from the other. Some women will not even know, say, that they are undergoing peri-menopause until their period suddenly stops and a doctor’s visit confirms menopause.
At What Age Does Menopause Occur?
Menopause typically occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. There is no connection between the age of your first period and the age at which you will menopause. However, it has been observed that in most cases women hit menopause around the same time as their mothers did. No one knows why this is so. And truth is told, no one can predict when menopause will occur. Some women in their 30s and 40s have also been known to reach menopause. And some women will not be affected by menopause till after they are 60, regardless of when their mothers went through menopause.
The symptoms of menopause can begin earlier than the actual menopause, sometimes years earlier. This is absolutely normal and not a cause of worry in the least. After all, menopause is a transitional phase in a woman’s life and a transition does not happen overnight.
What Factors Can Affect the Onset of Menopause?
Although not much can change when you will hit menopause, there are some factors that have been known to drastically affect the age at which menopause occurs.
- Women who smoke typically reach menopause much earlier than women who don’t. So if you want menopause to occur naturally and normally, kick the butt now.
- A total hysterectomy will obviously cause early menopause. This is an optional surgical procedure where the uterus and the ovaries are removed. No ovaries equals no estrogen and progesterone, which will lead to menopause symptoms no matter what your age. However, if you remove only your uterus and leave your ovaries intact, menopause will affect you at a normal time since the ovaries are producing the hormones that your body needs.
- About 1% of all women will experience menopause before they hit 40 because of premature ovarian failure – a condition where the ovaries just do not produce the required hormones, thus leading to menopause. The causes for the premature ovarian failure are unknown, so there is no way to avoid it or indeed even know if you are at any particular risk for it. However, it is hypothesized that it may be genetic or have something to do with autoimmune diseases.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the recommended treatment for cancer, have also been known to cause menopause to come before its time. Women who are undergoing chemo start to experience symptoms of menopause either during their chemo sessions or about 3 to 6 months after treatment is complete.
Symptoms of Menopause
Menopause does not just suddenly start out of the blue. As mentioned earlier, it is a transition and most women will experience the symptoms of this transition. Since the symptoms of menopause can be confusing and scary, it is comforting to know what they are and understand them so that you can associate it with normal menopause rather than worry that it is something more dire. Although the symptoms of menopause will vary, following are the most common symptoms of menopause.
- Women who are undergoing menopause usually have hot flashes. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of extreme heat, usually in the upper part of the body, regardless of whether the weather is hot or cold. This may be accompanied by flushing and red splotches on the face and body. This symptom of menopause may be followed by heavy sweating. Some women may experience shivering though. The hot flashes can last anywhere from 30 seconds to an excruciating 10 minutes every time.
- An alternative to hot flashes are night sweats. This symptom of menopause is simply a hot flash at night that is strong enough to wake you from sleep.
- Changes in your period are a very typical symptom of menopause. You may have very heavy periods when you have had a normal period flow throughout your life, or you may have a lighter flow than usual. Before menopause, your periods may last far longer than you are used to, sometimes more than a week. Many women find that as they near menopause, their periods occur more often, i.e. they come closer together. However, they can also be further apart, coming every two or three months. These period-related symptoms of menopause are usually the most reliable indicators that menopause is approaching.
- Another symptom of menopause is spotting when you do not have your period.
- Dryness of the vagina is another symptom of menopause. Hormones produced by the ovary are responsible for lubricating the vagina during sex and maintaining the moisture for habitation of healthy bacteria. So when hormone production is down, lubrication is affected. This may cause some discomfort or even pain during sex. This menopause symptom also leaves you more prone to urinary infections.
- Another genital related symptom of menopause is a slight loss of bladder control. You may find it difficult to hold your urine in and it may leak out when you are do something as simple as cough or laugh.
- Menopause symptoms can also affect your sex life. As seen earlier, vaginal dryness may cause some discomfort during sex. Women going through menopause may discover that they no longer enjoy sex or are just not that in the mood as often as before menopause. However, knowing that you no longer have to worry about contraception can also make you feel free and you could become more adventurous in the bedroom.
- Insomnia is another typical symptom of menopause. This may be because of the night sweats, but not always. Menopausal women find it difficult to fall asleep and remain asleep. This can affect their levels of energy throughout the day.
- Hormones greatly affect our emotions. It comes as no surprise then that mood swings are another common symptom of menopause. You will find yourself getting highly irritable as you approach menopause, in addition to feeling very depressed and stressed out for no apparent reason.
- Some women find that they are not able to concentrate as much as before their menopause symptoms occurred. The feeling is described as ‘fuzziness’. Doctors call this a brain fog and are not very sure why this menopause symptom happens.
- You may put on some weight around your waist during menopause. Gaining of abdominal fat is probably one of the most hated menopause symptoms.
- Hormones contribute to the condition of your skin and hair as well. This brings us to the next symptom of menopause – dry skin and thinning hair. Since your skin uses estrogen to retain moisture, you can expect to have some amount of dry and itchy skin as the estrogen wells run dry with menopause. Dreaded almost as much as the abdominal fat.
- If your breasts haven’t been sagging already, they will when you hit menopause as they lose some of their buoyancy and fullness.
- Joints and muscles may feel stiff and they may hurt when you are undergoing menopause. This menopause symptom is often overlooked as most women consider it a symptom of getting older.
- Another symptom of menopause is a faster heartbeat from time to time.
The symptoms of menopause will differ from woman to woman. Some women barely even notice that menopause is happening to them and will not realize that menopause has set in until their period stops completely or till they visit their gynecologist. You might suffer hot flashes that make you want to tear your clothes off, while your sister or best friend feels absolutely great and actually seems more relaxed and comfortable than ever before. This is OK. While there is nothing you can do to avoid the symptoms of menopause, there are some remedies to reduce the intensity of the symptoms of menopause.
Relief from Symptoms of Menopause
Menopause cannot be treated. It is a natural phase of your life just like periods and pregnancy. But the symptoms of menopause can sometimes get so bad that you are unable to maintain your quality of life. Your may have no energy to get out of the house, you may be too depressed to meet your friends and family or have a good time at all, and the hot flashes may be unusually severe causing embarrassment or great discomfort. In such cases, it is absolutely all right to ask your doctor for help in dealing with these menopause symptoms.
There are two ways that symptoms of menopause can be dealt with – lifestyle changes and hormone therapy – depending on the symptom of menopause that you are trying to curb. It is better to try lifestyle changes to ease menopause symptoms as hormone therapy may not suit everyone.
- Lifestyle changes to ease menopause symptoms should include getting rid of bad habits like smoking, drinking and doing drugs. Avoid spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine. Dos include eating a healthy diet with more fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, wearing lighter clothes, getting enough vitamin D and calcium either through your diet or with supplements.
- Try yoga or meditation to help you relax during menopause. Some meditation breathing techniques may be utilized to ease a hot flash.
- Do Kegel exercises to strengthen your vaginal muscles and pelvic floor so that you are not plagued by incontinence during menopause.
- During and after menopause, it is advisable to use a water-based lubricant before sexual intercourse to prevent discomfort.
- See a counselor about depression or extreme mood swings during menopause.
- Hot flashes of menopause cannot always be countered with lifestyle changes. You could try sipping cold water or dressing in light clothing, but if this menopause symptom is too intense you should speak to your doctor about hormone therapy.